When Bonnie first came to work at Verizon Wireless, her manager was impressed with her enthusiasm on the job but thought that she lacked business experience. She noted, “Bonnie would often make decisions based on how she felt about someone or something, rather than seeing the bigger picture.”
Yet, after taking advantage of the LearningLINK tuition assistance program at Verizon Wireless to take some business classes, the manager noticed a change: “Bonnie began to use her newly learned critical thinking skills to think outside of herself and make decisions based on business impact.” Bonnie’s work performance — and contributions to the company — improved so much that she has now assumed an acting supervisor role.
Bonnie’s story is not unusual — at least not at Verizon Wireless, which has taken concrete steps to ensure LearningLINK helps the company as much as it does the individual employee.
This may come as a surprise to some learning and HR professionals. Unlike company-sponsored training, tuition-assistance programs (TAPs) are usually viewed as little more than an employee benefit — a benefit that gives workers the opportunity to earn degrees and credentials that make them more valuable in the labor market. But if done right, companies can benefit from TAPs too.
Measuring the Benefits
Dorothy Martin, the national program manager for LearningLINK at Verizon, offered an explanation of the advantages of TAPs. “For years, I had been hearing from individual LearningLINK participants and from supervisors about the ways in which participants had become better employees,” she said. “Not only were they more committed to the company, but they had greater skills and knowledge that allowed them to contribute to the company in new ways.”
Recently, Martin has quantified these results. Through the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s (CAEL) Tuition Assistance Management Service (TAMS), Martin obtains monthly reports on program participation. By linking this data with employee data and data obtained from surveys of the LearningLINK participants and their supervisors, Martin examined business impact in four key areas: recruitment, retention, career mobility and job performance.
Verizon’s survey data showed that more than half of LearningLINK participants said that the program was definitely or probably a factor in their decision to accept employment at the company. Participation data shows that these claims are likely true, as 42 percent of LearningLINK participants have been with the company two years or less.
Turnover is a costly problem for many employers. Verizon is particularly affected by this issue, given that 80 percent of its workforce is in customer service and retail sales, areas that traditionally experience very high turnover rates. Isolating the direct cause of improved retention is a tricky proposition — there are often complex reasons why an employee chooses to stay — but Verizon suspects that LearningLINK may be one important factor.
A striking finding for Martin was that the general workforce is more than twice as likely to leave the company than are LearningLINK participants. This is reinforced by survey data showing that 96 percent of LearningLINK participants said they intended to stay with Verizon for at least two years after completing their degrees. When factoring in the cost to the company to hire new people, LearningLINK’s role in contributing to employee retention demonstrates that it likely pays for itself while also reducing overall rehire costs.
Martin found that employees who participated in LearningLINK in 2006 had a slightly higher incidence of
promotions and lateral moves (28 percent) within the company than did the general workforce (26 percent). The incidence increased to 35 percent for employees who earned degrees through the program. A similar pattern was also found for 2005.
In a follow-up survey of managers and supervisors at Verizon, Martin learned that 37 percent of the more than 1,000 respondents saw positive changes in employee job performance as a result of their participation in LearningLINK. The most common changes cited were:
• Improved employee satisfaction/retention (15 percent).
• Improved decision making (15 percent).
• Improved leadership/management skills (13 percent).
• Improved productivity (13 percent).
• Improved computer skills (10 percent).
Improved behaviors on the job were also evident, according to 38 percent of supervisors and managers, the most common among them being:
• Increased interest in personal career development (24 percent).
• Increased interest in seeking or accepting leadership roles within the team setting (15 percent).
• Increased interest in internal training opportunities (14 percent).
• Increased interest in additional work assignments or projects (14 percent).
• Increased adaptability to change in the workplace (13 percent).
In addition, 2005 performance data showed a higher percentage of LearningLINK graduates earn top ratings of “performing” and “leading” than the general employee population. The same is not true for LearningLINK participants, as a higher percentage of those employees are new to the company and, therefore, a higher percentage of those participants are rated “new in job.” Nineteen percent of LearningLINK employees have been with the company less than a year and 42 percent for less than two years.
Martin is pleased with the results that show how the TAP is benefiting the company, but she’s not surprised. “At Verizon Wireless, we have not left anything to chance. We have approached tuition assistance in a strategic way, and that has paid off in better performance, more productive employees and a workforce that is eager to take on more.”
Strategies to Make the Most of the TAP Investment
In his “ROI on Human Capital Investment,” Bellevue University’s Dr. Michael E. Echols points out that companies usually see TAPs as employee benefits that only have an impact on the expense budget. However, by using a more proactive approach to their TAPs, companies can shape “a true human capital investment strategy” that has a positive impact on the bottom line.
Verizon Wireless’s TAP is not that much different than programs offered by other companies, though it is generous. It offers up to $8,000 per year for tuition and related expenses ($4,000 for part-time employees), online management of tuition payment and the option of prepaid tuition, in addition to reimbursement. But the company knows that offering tuition assistance is just the first step to getting the workforce it needs.
To help LearningLINK have a greater business impact, the company has taken a number of key steps.
Step 1: Aggressive Marketing of the TAP
Verizon Wireless doesn’t just offer LearningLINK and sit back and wait to see what happens. The company makes sure that employees know about the TAP by providing information at multiple times throughout an employee’s tenure with the company. The distribution of information starts when new employees join the organization and are briefed on the tuition program during employee orientation.
Marketing literature outlines the benefits of the program to employees. The promotion continues through the company intranet, which includes information on the service. Additionally, since the program tracks which employees have earned degrees, Verizon Wireless is able to promote these individuals on the tuition Web site and in program brochures with pictures and success stories, further supporting the value of participation.
Verizon also counts on all HR staff to convey the importance of the LearningLINK program. The program is promoted in the training received by Verizon HR professionals. This training explains why LearningLINK is offered, how to promote it and how it can be helpful to the organization.
Step 2: Communication about Valuable Skills and Knowledge
According to Echols, an important strategy for getting the most out of a TAP is for the company to communicate its vision and future skill needs to employees. Verizon Wireless has found a number of ways to do that. For instance, the company offers:
• Job fairs, at which Verizon’s departments provide information to job applicants on what opportunities are available and what is needed for those openings in terms of skills and credentials.
• Career fairs, where the company helps employees think strategically about their careers and what kind of education and training they will need to advance in the company.
• Education fairs, where schools are invited to share program information with employees interested in starting or continuing higher edZcation degrees or other programs of study.
• On-site degree programs provided by local colleges, which have been customized to develop skills that the company needs. Providing those opportunities on-site not only communicates what is important to the organization but also makes it easy for employees to attend and encourages more active participation in the program.
• Internal career development and leadership training opportunities, through which the company communicates future needs. Verizon strategically targets some of these programs to key employee groups where individual career development is in need of focus.
Step 3: Recognition of Success
Verizon makes a point of recognizing employees who earn degrees through LearningLINK. In addition to posting and promoting success stories, each graduate receives a book from the senior vice president of HR at Verizon, along with a personalized card. Supervisors are then notified of the achievement, and they work with local HR teams to plan an event to recognize that achievement.
Step 4: Measurement of Critical Factors
ROI in education can be a contentious issue. Echols says that while many in HR believe it is simply too difficult to measure, the reality is that learning professionals must find credible ways to measure it. Otherwise, senior executives will never see tuition or training as the investment it is. The strategy of working with CAEL and its tuition management data to demonstrate the relationship between TAP participation and important company outcomes and ROI is having an impact internally. Senior executives at the company now view LearningLINK as an “investment” rather than merely an employee benefit.
Middle management also is recognizing the value of the tuition assistance program. They receive quarterly data reports in the form of one-page documents featuring colorful pie charts and graphs. This sharing of information is helping to build support at all levels of the organization for employee learning and development, because managers can see clearly how the investment benefits the company. Martin is seeing this is also having an impact, as more managers and supervisors are becoming instrumental in selling TAP to their teams.
For companies like Verizon Wireless, tuition assistance is truly a win-win proposition. It gives employees something they need for their own career development, but it also brings some real returns to the company, thanks to the strategic moves by the LearningLINK staff. With creativity, communication and measurement, a TAP can be far more than just an employee benefit. It can become a strategic investment with dividends that really matter.